In a terrible hit to the Padres marketing department, “the most interesting man in baseball” Christian Bethancourt was outrighted from the 40 man roster and sent to El Paso. The team is giving Bethancourt a chance to think for a day to decide if he wants to pursue being a pitcher still, or revert back to a position player. Word has it that Padres brass strongly wants him to continue to pitch, and Ron Fowler said this morning on 1090 that “they want him to focus on pitching”. Bethancourt was decidedly terrible as a pitcher this season, but that is to be expected from a player that scouts said was well behind fellow catcher-convertee Jose Ruiz in development as a pitcher. For reference, Ruiz is in High-A Lake Elsinore (which suggests that Bethancourt at AAA might not be wise). The preseason expectation was that Bethancourt would be a Swiss Army knife type player, acting as a backup catcher, outfielder, pinch hitter, and pitcher. This didn’t play out as he didn’t catch an inning, and the Padres ended up carrying three other catchers, showing that Bethancourt’s versatility wasn’t creating roster flexibility. With yesterday’s demotion, now was a good time to look at Bethancourt’s actual pitching performance.
I’ll preface by stating some assumptions related to Pitchf/X data. Most reporting has said that Bethancourt has a 4 seam fastball, change up, and a slider. Pitchf/X had some anomalies showing sinkers, except the sinkers were going the same speed as the fastball. I’m counting these as fastballs that, due to inconsistent mechanics, were actually fastballs. Pitchf/X also showed change ups being thrown in his 4/6/17 game that were in the mid 90’s. I’m counting these as fastballs that were miscategorized. In the end, here’s an adjusted summary of all of Bethancourt’s pitches over his four appearances:
The first thing that pops out at you is the disproportionate number of fastballs he threw. For comparison, Bartolo Colon is widely recognized as throwing the highest proportion of fastballs at about 88%. Bethancourt fell right behind that at 87%, with his last two outings having over 90% fastballs. It appears he lost whatever small faith he had in his secondary pitches (his second outing on 4/6/17 was his most balanced outing at 79% fastballs although he got rocked for 3 earned runs in a 1/3 of an inning). His fastball heavy strategy might work if he had Colon’s command or an Aroldis Chapman caliber fastball, but Bethancourt was throwing a fastball with good, not great velocity, averaging 95 mph. His velocities were varied between outings, with his first outings seeing an average fastball velo of 96 mph or above, peaking at 98 mpg. His last outing saw an average velo of 94 mph. It’s possible Balsley offered the same advice he gave Andrew Cashner: take some juice off the fastball in order to have a little better command. It’s also possible that Bethancourt’s arm isn’t prepared for a pitcher’s workload. It’s entirely possible that we only have a small sample to analyze. Regardless, he’s not throwing three digit heat where you might get away with throwing 90% fastballs. He’s what you’d expect a converted catcher that had a single Panamanian Winter League season to learn how to pitch to be: a thrower.
Command was decidedly lacking as it appeared Bethancourt was happy to just get his pitches in the vicinity of the strike zone. He didn’t appear to have the ability to point his pitches at specific areas of the zone. Here are the strike zone plots for his four appearances:
You can first see that his pitches are all over the place, not clustered around the edges of the strike zone. You can also see that when he missed, he tended to miss most often high. In fact, 57% of his pitches fell in the upper quarter of the strike zone or above. This wasn’t particularly effective because, aside from the walks, four of the six hits given up by Bethancourt were in that upper quarter of the zone or above. While it’s possible pitching high was his strategy, I think it’s far more likely that it’s a result of trying to throw the ball really hard and having little idea where it’s going; in cases like this, you tend to see a lot of pitches end up high.
The other fatal flaw for Bethancourt was that for a pitcher who’s out there for his supposed stuff, he got very, very few whiffs on his pitches.
|Pitch Type||Whiffs / Whiff per swing %|
|FA (Fastball)||4 / 14.8%|
|SI (Sinker)||0 / 0%|
|CH (Changeup)||0 / 0%|
|SL (Slider)||1 / 10.0%|
In all, Bethancourt only saw whiffs on 5% of his pitches, and of the 44 swings taken while facing him, only 11% of swings whiffed. If you want a comparison, the league average for fastball whiff percentage per swing is 28% and 32% for sliders. This could be a product of a few things. Batters may have known Bethancourt lacked command and were exceedingly patient while facing him, waiting for a pitch they knew they could hit. Bethancourt’s lack of command may result in not hitting his spots strategically. It’s also possible Bethancourt’s stuff just isn’t that good. Whatever the reason is, whiff percentage is a good measure to estimate how effective a pitcher might be, and it’s not looking good for Christian.
All of this isn’t meant as an attack on Christian Bethancourt. He was put into an unwinnable situation. There is little precedent to converting a position player into a Major League level pitcher in a single offseason. The hubris thinking what takes other pitchers 15 years to master could be done in 6 months is off the charts. Bethancourt is in a better place now (aside from having to pitch in a hitters’ mecca) where he can attempt to learn the craft over more time and not against the best hitters in the world. The fact that he had no options left and couldn’t be sent down to the minors without passing through waivers meant that he had to learn on the job; he was essentially the fourth Rule 5 player on the roster.
As a brief aside, I had to ask the question: did Bethancourt start the season on the MLB roster to kill any value he had so he could pass through waivers? The Padres made a concerted effort to ensure he showed no positional player value, only using him for occasional pinch hitting appearances. In fact, Green outwardly said last week that Bethancourt would not play catcher for this team. There was potential that another team would want to take a chance on Bethancourt, a former top 100 catching prospect, to catch for them. The Padres gave Bethancourt minimal time in the Spring catching, focused on pitching over the off season, and basically made sure that any catching skills he had would have eroded. They then threw him to the wolves to get battered at the Major League level, and were eventually able to pass him through waivers and send him to the minors, which is the best possible outcome. It’s a conspiracy theory I’m going to choose to believe.